Today I’m chatting to Ben Street about his new book ‘How to Enjoy Art: A Guide for Everyone‘. We’re talking about how we can engage with art without needing to know anything about it.
Ben Street is an author, educator and art historian. He’s also been a school teacher and museum educator.
He’s an academic and he writes books – “How to Enjoy Art: A Guide for Everyone” (Yale) and “How to be an Art Rebel” (Thames and Hudson) are out now.
In our chat today, we talk about the values that guide Ben’s work and how he’s passionate about us all being able to enjoy art without needing any specialist knowledge.
We talk about slow looking and open questioning and how we can approach art with the tools we already have within us.
We focus on why looking is so important to the art experience, we explore ways in which we can look for longer and we talk about how scale and space affects how we relate to art.
We discuss why we rarely feel we need to read about a piece of music before we listen to it, but with art, we feel we need to know something about it to look at it. And that artworks come ‘wrapped in text’ before we can even get to them. Why is this? How has this come about?
This chat is jam-packed with ideas and inspiration for you. Here’s my chat with Ben. Enjoy!
Claire Bown 03:53
So hi, Ben, Welcome to The Art Engager podcast.
Ben Street 03:57
Thank you, Claire. I’m delighted to be here.
Claire Bown 03:59
So can you tell us, for the benefit of all our listeners who can’t see where you are right now, where you are in the world?
Ben Street 04:06
Yeah, I am in southeast London, which is where I do most of my work from
Claire Bown 04:12
And your work. Tell us a little bit about what you do. And yeah, your experience, perhaps to this point?
Claire Bown 04:20
Yeah, there’s quite a complicated answer to that. But I’ll try and keep it really simple if I can, or at least I keep it straightforward for now. Basically, I’ve been working for the last 20 years, probably approximately, in a kind of mediation role between artworks and different publics. That’s the kind of way I understand it. That’s the way I sort of described it to myself, so I know what I’m doing. So I seem…so that mediation role has taken on lots of forms. It’s been I’ve been a school teacher for many years. I’m currently teaching at universities, I’m a writer of interpretation for museums and exhibitions. I’m a writer of art criticism. I’m an academic and I write books. So but it’s all, I think, basically variations on the idea of being between an artwork and a person looking at it.
Claire Bown 05:23
That’s a really nice way of describing it. And I like the idea of a mediator as well. So, thinking about your broad experience, I mean, when I was reading about your experience as an art historian, you’ve also been a museum educator teaching. So what are the those values and principles that really guide your work?
Ben Street 05:42
Oh, it’s a really good question. And one, I’m always kind of asking myself, I guess. But I think basically, my sort of guiding principle in all of those aspects of my work has been about really sustained looking at objects. And it sort of relates, obviously, to what you’ve talked about with guests on the podcast before, which is the idea about slow looking, which, obviously, we can talk about more, but all of those things have been about encouraging a slower apprehension of artworks a slower register of them, to kind of adjust yourself to their timeframe, rather than to see them on your own timeframe, I guess that’s that, maybe we can unpack that later, if you’d like..
Claire Bown 06:34
We can come back to that, I think I was gonna say you’re in the right place. This is definitely, this is one of the themes one of the passions for this podcast, for my work as well over the last 10 years or so. I really wanted to focus our chat on your new book, which I must say, I was very excited when it came out, rushed and got my copy, I’ve really enjoyed reading it. So what prompted you to write ‘How to Enjoy Art’?
Ben Street 07:04
Thank you, first of all, for saying that, that’s really nice. I realised that experiences that I’ve had as an educator, especially with younger children, were experiences that I think are valuable ones for anyone to be aware of. And what I mean by those experiences is, excuse me, is experiences of open questioning when it comes to artworks, slow, slow looking, and a kind of group dynamic in creating an idea of meaning. And I thought that all of those ideas, which are so kind of intrinsic to what museum education is, are ideas that could be useful for anyone wanting to engage with art, I think that adult audiences don’t get the opportunity to be taught about art in the way that school children are. And I think that the way schoolchildren are taught in not all museums, but in in, you know, I was trained in the American system of inquiry based learning, like open questions and things. And I think that way of looking at art is something that doesn’t have to just be for children. It’s something that’s really relevant for adult groups. And it’s irrelevant, whatever your level of knowledge, I mean, I find those I mean, I’m an academic too. And so I actually find those sorts of things really useful in my academic work, just keeping the questions open and keep asking myself, you know, that question that improv question; ‘Yes, and…’, like, ‘I noticed this, and this..’, and keep building on it. So the book came out of a realisation that, that there was a lot of writing around art that treated artworks as repositories of information that could just be, quote unquote, “read”, that you could just look at a painting and then, you know, you could sort of understand it through recourse to like a set of data. And then you would have cracked the painting and can move on to the next one. I want to do something in which kept the mystery of paintings and artworks generally open, to keep the mystery alive of artworks and not to suggest that artworks are things that can be cracked or decoded. Because that’s, I strongly believe that that’s not what they’re for. So that’s kind of what it came from really. I also wanted to set myself a challenge. And I’m, to be quite honest, I’m quite amazed that I was able to do this, but I did do it. The book is a real object, but I wanted to write a book about art, which included no traditional art history at all. They had no biography, no historical contextualization, no discussion of conservation, no discussion of materials and techniques, just to be about what would it be like if you looked at an artwork that you knew nothing about? And rather than just standing there and reading text or listening to an audio guide or getting a guided tour, you can actually figure it out yourself, that you could do it. And the principle of the book, which is, I think kind of the principle, a lot of the work that I do is that people already have the tools with them to understand artwork, they just don’t know that they do. And so the book, and a lot of the other things that I do, are quite simply about encouraging people to realise that their everyday experiences of life are relevant to the experience of looking at a painting from a different country, a different religion 500 years ago, the what you want is to bridge the gap that seems to be there. But it’s not really there. Hope that makes sense?
Claire Bown 10:52
Yeah, no, absolutely. And I was, as you saw, nodding along at various points, because lots of it really struck a chord with me as well, in my work over the past few years, I do a lot of work training in museums with museum educators and guides. And I’m trying to, maybe, change the way that perhaps some guides, maybe more traditional guides might work with members of the public and how they might work with artworks, how they might engage with them. And I’ve heard the same comments… Many of my trainings are enthusiastically received by a lot of people, but there will always be a few comments saying, ‘Well, this won’t work with adults, adults prefer to be told information, they want to hear my knowledge, they want to hear what I’ve learned as an art historian’. So yes, lots of this was really resonating with me. And the point is, as you made, it’s about engaging with works of art as as people, as we already have the tools within us. So I think yeah, taking it from that standpoint – how can we approach a museum with the tools that we already have? What tools do you recommend in your book?
Ben Street 12:08
Well, that’s a great question. I can just respond to what you said as well, because I, it struck a chord with me, because I’ve heard, I’ve heard that before, as well, I’ve heard, I’ve heard it said, you know, adults don’t..But that’s not what adults want. As you’ve already said, adults wants to be told all this information, you think, unless the information is embedded in an actual experience of looking, then they might as well read a Wikipedia page. And by the way, I am an art historian, which means that I’m not discounting.. I don’t I do not believe that artworks are equivalent to random objects that you put on a table. We can have a conversation about this, I’ve got a coffee cup, and we can have a conversation about the coffee cup. And we can have a really nice long conversation about coffee cup. But a coffee cup is not the same thing. As a..Just because I’ve been thinking about him a lot, a painting by Matisse. It’s a different thing. So I do think my approach is also to respect the artist and to keep the artist alive in the conversation and not not treat the object as just a kind of a random thing. I want to respect the physicality of the object too. But and this leads on to answering your question, what do we bring with us?
Ben Street 13:21
One initial thing, I think, and something I write about my book and think about a lot is the idea of scale. We encounter, we negotiate the world, through our sense of relative scale, like how big we are in relation to this thing, whether we need to duck our heads to go through that doorway, you know, how far away something is, how if we have to look up at something or look down at something, like really basic physical actions that happen in order to negotiate just being alive in the world, like whoever we are. Now, all of those things are things that artworks also are operating within. Because the thing that’s distinctive about an artwork is that it exists in three dimensional space. Now, little asterisk at the end of that. And the asterisk says, yeah, there are some artworks that don’t, but most artworks do exist in physical space. And if we want to, I mean, I want to really focus on what makes fine art I call it fine art, there’s a bit of a naff phrase to use, but anyway.. Fine art. What makes that different to films, books, poems, music, etc. What makes it different is that unlike all those things, it’s embodied, it’s a thing in the space with us. A song is not a thing. A book is not a book as a thing, but a book is reproduced, can be reproduced millions of times and it’s the same thing. You know, I can read Great Expectations on my phone. I can read the original manuscript and it’s the same novel, right? But the ‘After the Medusa’ by Gericault is only one thing, it’s not, you can see on a screen but it’s not that’s not the ‘Raft of the Medusa’, that’s a photograph of the ‘Raft of the Medusa’ is totally different thing. So I want to hone in on what makes the experience of art unique. And one of things that makes it unique is that it’s a physical encounter. So I think we need to just say, Okay, well, let’s, let’s actually think about that rather than standing in front of…sorry to use a cheesy, you know, it’s a cheesy example maybe, but you know, The ‘Raft of the Medusa’ by Gericault, you stand in front of that, and you can reel off loads of historical data. But the most important thing that painting is doing is communicating through it’s actual physicality. Its size, like it’s a huge object. And you can say, well, what’s it a huge object, like, I mean, it’s like the size of a wall. It’s like the size of a billboard or a large cinema screen. Or, you know, another thing we have to negotiate physically so we can, rather than leaping in to interpretation, rather than starting to put it into little boxes of language, and context, we can say, well, how does it feel, to stand in front of stand or sit in front of this huge object on a wall? What’s that feeling like? And just stay with that feeling for a bit, stay with it, and think about how that feels. Because everyone knows how that feels. Because everyone’s had to negotiate the world physically. So that’s what I mean by the tools that we already have, like, we already have those tools, those are things we use all the time. And sometimes we can feel where there are a number of barriers, right?
Ben Street 16:36
And what sometimes we can feel that our everyday experiences are not ones we should draw on when we look at pictures or sculptures. But actually, that’s the only way we can look at them. You know, we can’t stand in front of an old sculpture, and pretend it’s ancient Greece. We’re not in ancient Greece. The only way we can bring it to life is by comparing it with our own experiences, by bringing it to light for ourselves. And I’ll make another comparison here with books. Every novel, right? Every novel is a collaborative experience. But every novel is collaborative experience. I keep using these, let’s use Harry Potter as an example. Right? So Harry Potter was half written by JK Rowling and half written by me, because when I read it, what I saw in my head was visual images that I invented. And that is how that is I am that I’m one of the authors. Now this is very established in art practice, right? So if you, you know, go back to someone like Marcel Duchamp, who’s a big figure for me, he also said, you know, the authorship of a work is not just the artist, the authorship is made in the experience, in the encounter. I think we can forget that and I want to keep that at the forefront of how we understand the art experience to be. Yeah, that’s a bit long winded, but I hope I’ve sort of sort of addressed some of the things you asked,
Claire Bown 18:09
Yeah, there’s so many things I’d love to pick up on from there. But one thing you reminded me of is, in the book, when you talk about other art forms, like books, or films, or music, and how we don’t feel as though we need to read anything about those art forms before we feel that we can dive into them. So we wouldn’t dream of really reading about a piece of music without.. we feel that we have all the tools, we need to be able to listen to it. So why is it so different with art? How is how is this come about?
Ben Street 18:37
That’s a great question. I mean, I think yeah, I mean, I definitely, I mean, for instance, like, you know, I’m a massive fan of Stevie Wonder, for example, like there are songs by him, I’ve listened to, like, seven or 8000 times or whatever, but I didn’t really know anything about him. I know the basic facts, I don’t know anything about how the album was recorded, like where it was made, I know none of those things, because I don’t really feel I need to, I don’t feel that knowing that information is going to make me like the song more, it’s not going to help me understand the song more, I think, well, why should it be to echo your question? Why should it be that a painting should be any different to that? The problems that, you know, I mentioned this idea that, you know, there are things that artworks have that songs, books, etc, don’t have which is that they have a physical presence, which needs to be you know, attended to, but the other thing about artworks is that they, you know, that they have to be they have to be within certain spaces in order to be seen. Like they rely so much on a physical, on an actual, spatial context. So, you know, even a.. let’s disregard public sculpture, although that’s a different thing. But like that also needs a certain kind of context. But like a museum context for instance, which is how we mostly experience artwork in museums or galleries. That a museum already in its architectural style already interprets artwork for us. You already start interpreting a collection before you step in the door. And you step in the door. And a museum, you know, it has a certain role, you know, public museums are there as educational institutions as much as conservation ones and academic ones, to some extent etc. And commercial enterprises, all that stuff. But there’s often text. In other words, I mean, just to get to the point of what you’re asking me, there’s often text.. we encounter them, like something I mentioned in the book is that they come wrapped.. artworks come ‘wrapped in text’. Like you can’t get to an artwork. You can get to a song, I can play you a song right now, you have… nothing gets in the way, between you and the song. But an artwork, lots of stuff gets in the way, like the museum gets in the way, the text on the museum wall gets in the way. Lots of… it’s like, mist, it’s like fog in front of the picture. Like you have to, it’s like mediate.. there’s all this mediation that’s happening, you have to be able to blow away that fog, you have to be able to wait to sort of to clear the air so you can actually have a closer encounter with it. And make the encounter more like a song because I do I do think that there. I do think that it’s all much of a muchness, it’s kind of the same thing like that those, I do think that pop music, and painting and Renaissance paintings are basically the same thing. You know, these are, you know, that they use the means at their disposal to create a certain kind of..a certain kind of reaction. And if you tune into those things, you’re able to get that reaction. It’s just that the fact that art isn’t portable, like a song is portable, and it’s not shareable, like a song is shareable, it becomes much more difficult to have an unmediated relationship with it. So that’s the issue really, I think..
Claire Bown 21:54
Yeah. So there’s all these things in the way. And I think there’s also rules and habits, we have, we have certain rules when we have how we behave when we go to museums of when we enter the space. How we walk around the space, what we look, at what we read, there’s a real… there’s a set of norms around behaviour in museums. And what you advocate for in the book, which I wholeheartedly agree with, is a different way, that kind of that slowing down not feeling the need to see everything in one go that has been somehow part of our norms, or the way we visit museums. So yeah, can you talk a little bit about how looking is so important to this personal connection with artworks?
Ben Street 22:40
I get this idea that the art experience, as we normally have it mitigates against slow looking, like a lot is stacked against it. And one of the things that stacked against it, apart from habit, force of habit, is the fact that museums are so big stuff, it’s the fact that there’s so much in them. And you know what, you shouldn’t complain about the fact that I mean, it’s provided the art, the objects are there, and, you know, ethically, and there’s no restitution claims. You know, it’s great that we have so many stuff…so much stuff in museums. The problem with that is that we can feel that we need to see everything, we feel that we need to, we need to pack it in, we need to see the whole lot. And we know and by the way, my analogy would be if you go on holiday somewhere and you go to a museum on holiday. You can say ‘well, I’ve got to kind of see all… I got to see the whole thing’. I’m the same, you know, and you get to the end and you go, ‘Phew, that was knackering’. Did I really look at anything? Not really, I just basically just ‘did’ the museum, I like paced the museum, and it wasn’t a very satisfying experience. And you’ll find that you don’t really remember it, you don’t really remember what you saw, or you don’t remember the experience very well. And I think that’s true. And so I do think there are there are things, there are things stacked against us. And we have to basically resist what we..have to resist the norms of behaviour, in a way certain norms of behaviour. And we have to say to ourselves, okay, to quote Mark Rothko, which I think is a good line. He said, ‘My painting is not about an experience, it is an experience’. And I think that’s something that goes through every artwork, every artwork is an experience. Now, if you walk through a gallery, and it’s hung with paintings, floor to ceiling, you could think of The Met or the Rijksmuseum or the National Gallery in London or whatever. Every single one of those pictures is a potential experience. Whoever you are, you can have that experience. But the only way you can have the experience is by adjusting to the time scale of the picture. But that’s the only way you can do it. You have to you have to stop and look at it. If you walk past it. You know, it’s like walking. What’s it like? It’s like going on it’s like being in a fairground, walking through a fairground seeing all the rides, and going, ‘Nah, I don’t like the look of that..’ That’s fine. You know, you might say don’t fancy go on the rollercoaster or the ghost train. The only way you’re gonna know what it’s really like is actually going on it, right? And you know, you might hate it. And you might hate the artwork. That’s totally possible too. But the only way you can commit to it, is by actually engaging with what the experience is.
Ben Street 25:24
Look. Obviously, we live in a super image-rich culture. And that can be good and bad for looking at old art or just looking at art. Because the way we look at..the way we look at images in an image-rich culture is that we look through them, like, they’re like transparents, like. What I mean by that is that we read them really quickly, like we read it on Instagram selfie quickly, like you can understand what it is and you move on to the next thing or you read a photograph, you know, an advert quickly. But artworks are meant to be read slowly we can be..we can..I hope I’m trying to make sense here.. like, we bring with us…like we’re a different audience. You know, if you go to see, let’s say you got to see Renaissance paintings, like the audience, looking at the paintings now in the museum is a totally different audience, partly for lots of reasons. But partly because we live in a culture where we see an infinite number more images in a day than somebody at that time was seeing in a year. So what does that mean? It means to some extent, we’re more visually literate. It means to some extent we’ve got more images to draw upon. And that’s true, because they didn’t go to museums, for example. But the other thing is that we can become quite blase about images, we can kind of, get so used to them sliding past us that we can sort of treat all visual materials as though it’s the same. We can say like that, you know, this Vermeer is the equivalent of a photograph of a selfie on Instagram. And it is a different timeframe of looking. But I want to emphasise that you don’t have to know anything. To do this. You don’t have to know anything, anything, you just have to be prepared to give it time. Anyone can be prepared to give it time. But you just have to be able to be willing to commit. And I promise you that what happens if you commit is that the experience will start to happen. And it’s like a magical process. It’s like the roller coaster starting to move, the wheels start to turn, and the artwork starts to come alive. But it just is is a roller coaster that you decided not to go on unless you start.
Claire Bown 27:36
I’d love to talk a little bit more about that art of slowing down because I think, well, it’s definitely become more well known in the last 10/11 years. I think definitely in the last two years, perhaps since since the pandemic, there’s been lots of slow looking online, which perhaps has helped, although it’s quite ironic that we’re looking at, as you say, pictures of images on a screen rather than actually slowing down in the actual museum. But I think what I’ve noticed over the years is that is actually quite a difficult thing to do to spend time with an artwork, it’s not an easy thing, especially for someone who’s a first time viewer or a first time visitor to an art museum, it’s actually quite painful to spend a long period of time with an artwork. So do you have any tips for how someone might approach a work of art and approach this idea of slow looking?
Ben Street 28:32
Yeah, that’s..they’re such great points you’re making, I totally agree. I mean, I think you have to go in with the expectation, with the knowledge that it can be quite awkward, it can be quite uncomfortable. And one way of getting around the discomfort, is to draw it. And even if you’re not an artist.., I think you know, so I’ve done quite a lot of workshops over the years with people getting them to draw and like 9 times out of 10 people say ‘I can’t draw’ – adults, I mean, I can’t draw whatever… the whole thing with drawing is that you’don’t have to show anyone your drawing, your drawing is a way of thinking, you know, it’s actually a way of making you look more closely and carefully. And the good thing about drawing in a museum, although people sometimes look over your shoulder, is that it allows you to look for longer, it gives you a reason to look for longer. But you can find other strategies – you can listen to music, you could actually put a song on and say right, I’m going to look at this picture for the duration of this three minute song. And three minutes is quite a long time to look at a picture. And it can give you a little duration.
Ben Street 29:32
Because I do think one of the big issues with looking at artworks is that people, and I include myself in this, don’t really know how long you’re supposed to look at it for. And I’m quite interested in those statistics that get shared every six months on Twitter where people say ‘new report reveals that the average amount of time somebody spends in front of a picture is 60 seconds’. When I hear that I’m like, so? Because is that short or long? You could look at an artwork for one second, like, is that bad? You know what I mean? It’s as though the people sharing it…I’ve been guilty of this.. the people sharing it know how long you’re supposed to look at a painting. And that isn’t 60 seconds, you’re like, well, tell me how long you’re supposed to look at it for. Because actually, artworks don’t come with a duration like films do, you know film say this is gonna be two hours, your time. And video art doesn’t really that’s a bit of an exception. So and the the thing about an audio guide, which I’ve written audio guide scripts before, but not read them out, is that the an audio guide is that it tells you how long to stand in front of a picture for. It gives you information, but I’ve got no illusions about this, I think it really is basically saying, ‘stay for as long as I’m talking and then move on’. Is that helpful? And so when we have this idea, people say, ‘Oh, adults want to be told’ ‘Adults don’t want tours where they get to ask questions and things’. Think it’s partly to do with the idea…. Oh you’ve got a black out?
Claire Bown 31:02
My lights gone out. I didn’t want to distract you. But…
Ben Street 31:08
No, that’s fine! I think a really informational tour is helpful for people because they don’t know how to look. And that’s what comes down to. Like if somebody’s guiding you around and gives you lots of historical contextualization and information about a picture, it’s really comforting, because it basically it tames the artwork, it makes the artwork totally palatable. It means that we can start to imagine that, like a Vermeer painting is just a historical product. It’s just it’s just…a Vermeer painting is just about Delft in 1650 or whatever, it’s not about anything else, it can contain it. But I think artworks are unruly, and actually want my thinking about artwork, and my teaching about artwork to maintain the unruliness of objects. And what I met me by unruliness is, I don’t think artworks can be contained very easily in language, I think that they are, you know, great artworks actually subvert what we have to say about them. There’s always more to see. Right. And we, you know, we know this to be true.
Ben Street 32:11
Anyway. Yeah. So So what am I saying? Oh, yeah, slow looking. Yeah…slowly, because it’s hard to answer, because I don’t always do slow looking myself, but I think that I think that you can, if you, if you think about it, if you compare it with the timescale of a different art form, start to think to yourself, ‘Okay, like, I’m gonna look at this, I’m gonna look at this artwork, for as long as it takes to listen to a pop song, I’m gonna look at this artwork, for as long as it takes to read a normal couple of page length poem, I’m gonna look at artwork…’, and you can keep expanding it, you can even say, I’m gonna look at this artwork for as long as it takes to read War and Peace, because you could. But these, because every other form of culture is durational. Like, it’s got a time, but paintings don’t have a time, photographs don’t have a time, sculpture doesn’t have a time. So what you have to do is, is just like, borrow something from another art form. And say, I’m gonna, I’m going to make this durational, I’m actually going to do this. And I bet anybody could handle that, you know. Pop earphones on, and listen to like a three minute pop song, while you look at it. And also, it will totally change the way you see the picture. And just do it for that amount of time. And then you can, then you’re starting to adjust to the timeframe of, of pictures, because they have this, you know, because pictures, paintings or whatever, have this problem of being flat and visual, so that they can become like other flat and visual things, but better than they are. That’s really what I think.
Claire Bown 33:51
So useful. And I think what you do in the book as well is that you give us it gives us frameworks through which we can approach an artwork with and I know through my work as well, that that’s been especially useful for people who find that slowing down difficult. ‘Can you give me a framework, a loose framework that will help guide my looking, help me think about what I’m looking at?’ And we’ve already mentioned scale, which is, you know, one of the ways that you mention in your book that we can engage with art, you’ve also got colour and process, placement, content. Placement for me is fascinating as well, because I’m always curious about the way artworks are hung in a particular gallery and the choices that have been made about what’s next to what and yeah, and the space inside the gallery as well. I mean, how can space affect how we relate to art?
Ben Street 34:48
Oh, huge. I mean, massively. Yeah, also space, the space of museums and galleries… sort of teach us how to move around the galleries to I think, like they can. I mean, certain museums have like a, I’m just thinking about museums that I know, especially Old Master ones, you know, The Met in New York, for example, you know, you go up the steps inside The Met, and it’s got this massive hall, which is, you know, look, I’m, quite honestly, I’m intimidated by it. And I should feel totally at home in museums, but I don’t. The Met is like, totally overwhelming, not just because it’s so big, but also because I just feel like I’m the wrong kind of person to be in The Met, somehow. It just feels way too crammed. And I guess I get why people don’t like going to museums like that completely. But and that sort of, and the decision about what goes where, on the walls, again, like completely affect …our experience is totally affected by that, you know, museums are argument, you know, the hang of a room of pictures is an argument about the past, you know, it’s saying, These are the works that we think are worth saving. These the works, we think are worth looking at, you know, and so it’s always not ideological, but it’s always got a meaning, you know, it’s always got a motivation behind it, I guess, I would say. So that’s an important thing to just be aware of, and to kind of, I guess, sort of pick up on. So in other words, what you can do in a museum is you can start to kind of be an active, be an active participant, but not just when you’re standing in front the painting, from the moment you go in the door, like so so jut look at what’s the museum doing? Like, how is it making me feel? If you go into, a classic one is if you go into a commercial gallery space, like, like a classic white cube gallery space, you know, and those are really intimidating environments. And I quite often I go in those spaces all the time but sometimes I, I stay for less than a couple of minutes, because I just don’t feel comfortable there at all. I’m not going in there to buy art, I’m going there to look at stuff, but I don’t like being in them at all. But that’s what I should do really is stay and notice that feeling and say, ‘Well, what’s creating that feeling, it’s not the artwork, it’s the architectural space, it’s the environment, it’s the text on the wall. It’s all those things, all that stuff is interpreting it. And once you notice that, that’s what’s going on, hopefully, you can start to treat it more critically. You know, you can just say, ‘Well, hold on a second..’ And just remind yourself, the natural home of an artwork is not a museum. Like if you go to an old museum of old stuff, The Met, National Gallery, Rijksmuseum Prado, none of those artworks are made for museums, those works were made for totally different kinds of spaces. A church is nothing like a museum. A palace is nothing like a museum. So suddenly, you have..you noticed that there’s something artificial going on. And you say, ‘Well, hold on a second, this feels like the natural home for artwork, but it’s not’. It’s like as natural as an animal in a zoo. So you have to go okay, well, what’s actually going on here like, you can start to be a bit more critical about it. And once you notice placement, then you can then you…I feel like that can be a liberating experience, basically, that you can start to say, right, well, they’re interpreting it, so I can as well. That’s the way I feel about placement. I think the other thing about placement as well. And this is sort of about placement, is that… So I really want to emphasise actually, is that when we look at artworks, in books, or on websites or in lectures, what you’re looking at is not an artwork, you’re looking at a photograph. Obvious, but an important point. When you go into an art gallery and you look at a painting, it’s nothing like the photograph you saw in the book or on the website. Because you can move, you can see it from different angles, and you should, because not all artworks are made to be seen face on. And regardless of whether they’re made to be seen face on doesn’t matter, you can do it, you can move. So I advise looking at artworks from the side, I advise looking at them from below, not because you’re quote ‘supposed to’, but because it means it just opens up the artwork a bit more, it liberates you, because it connects to this idea about behaviour. And the idea that, you know, there’s a way we think we’re supposed to behave in museums, but aside from actually stealing the pictures or touching them, there isn’t really, you know, there isn’t really a way to walk in a museum. There isn’t really, you know, there wasn’t really at all, you know, we might feel there’s an orthodoxy, but you can do it how you like.
Claire Bown 34:54
Yeah, I love it. It reminds me of Episode 72 when we were talking about movement in museum and we were talking about who we are and where we are in relation to an artwork is is really important. It’s really interesting as well that sometimes I will work with a group in a museum and I will get everybody to change places literally so that they can see it from a different angle and the amount of new things that people notice when they’ve shifted positions, is quite incredible. It’s just having that awareness or feeling, well, I can use this space how I want to, I can look at it from far away, I can look at it close up, you know, as you say, from below, or above, all those sorts of things are perhaps tools that we can take to a museum visit. And we can be more playful and more creative when we visit a museum, which I think can make museums more, more, more enjoyable, but also more welcoming to, to everyone..so lots of people can go in and enjoy those experiences.
Ben Street 39:49
Totally. Yeah, I think museums are places of creativity. I mean, you know, artworks breed other artworks like that, you know, and make for creative thinking. And that’s exactly what they’re supposed to be. I completely agree. Yeah, we can’t, you know, that, I think we just have to really assert, what I want to do is really assert the fact that if you’re an artist, you make objects, you don’t make flat images, you make objects, even if you’re a photographer, you make objects, you make three dimensional things. And so we should think about them in a three dimensional way, you know, treat paintings as though they’re sculptures, because I think they are sculptures, basically, or I think whatever, they they can switch categories. I don’t think those categories are very solid anyway. So I do advise, you know, we have to sort of, you know, remind ourselves that we’re embodied, you know, that we are, when we look at artworks, we are not just eyes, like floating, disembodied eyes floating through museum space, we’re actually bodies and our bodies are different. And our bodies contain experience. And all that stuff is like vital stuff. You know, it’s not stuff we should suppress. It’s stuff that should become activated in the museum encounter, I think.
Claire Bown 41:54 I think in those words, I’m going to wrap it up, because I think that’s a wonderful quote to end on. Thank you, Ben, for spending time with me today and with our listeners and for talking about your book.
SLOW LOOKING CLUB
If you want to get more slow looking into your life and make it a regular practice, join us in the Slow Looking Club. We have weekly themes and monthly get togethers. It’s a place for conversation and discussion about engaging with art, objects and life slowly whether for personal enjoyment or for your practice as a cultural or museum educator.